The coach stood and asked the question — “Cal, how many times during your streak did you play through injuries, whether it was bad ankles, back pain, hamstrings, whatever it might be?”
Cal Ripken Jr. didn’t miss a beat. “Two thousand, one-hundred and thirty times,” he said, while the crowd roared in laughter.
Ripken delivered a bevy of quips and one-liners that kept the chuckles flowing, as well as offering some insight into what went into his legendary consecutive games streak, as the featured speaker at the Texas High School Baseball Coaches Association’s Hall of Fame banquet on Friday night at the Waco Convention Center.
Ripken, the former shortstop and third baseman for the Baltimore Orioles who earned enshrinement into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006, is best known for being baseball’s all-time Ironman. In 1995, he surpassed Lou Gehrig in the Major League record books for consecutive games played, a streak that he stretched three more years, until it reached 2,632 games in all. Naturally, because of that milestone of longevity, he has often been quizzed about his secret. What was his trick to endurance?
“And I’d always say, ‘It just kind of happened. I just love to play baseball,’” Ripken said. “I didn’t really have a great answer. Then one time Derek Jeter asked me the question and I answered him the same way, ‘It just kind of happened, Derek.’ And I saw his face and saw that he was really disappointed.”
“Then a reporter asked me in an interview, ‘Do you think your record will ever be broken? They always said this was the unbreakable record, and you broke it,’” Ripken continued. “And I said, ‘Sure, if I did it someone else could do it.’ And the reporter asked, ‘What kind of traits would a player need to break the record?’ And I thought, ‘Hey, this might give me the answer to Derek’s question.’”
Ripken went on to come up with eight characteristics a player would need to possess to put together such a string of endurance. “I thought, ‘These are pretty good. I might be able to parlay these into a book deal.’ And I did.”
Ripken elaborated on those characteristics for a rapt group of around 3,000 high school baseball coaches in attendance at Friday’s event. They included such ingredients as drive, consistency, the will to succeed, preparation and a passion for what you do.
The Hall of Fame slugger eventually opened it up to questions from the coaches, and shared a collection of stories and anecdotes from his 21 years in the big leagues, which included 19 all-star appearances. He told about how he learned to treat opposing players fairly, even going out of his way to be helpful. For instance, he noticed how Rickey Henderson would sprint from second base to try to take third base, sometimes hurling his body into the bag with a violent, headfirst slide, even when a hitter might tag a foul ball. So Ripken began to let Henderson know, “Don’t run, Rickey, it’s a foul ball.”
“And he would say, ‘Rickey thanks you. You save Rickey’s body,’” Ripken said.
One coach asked Ripken who his least-favorite player to face was, and he mentioned former Yankees pitcher Goose Gossage, “because he threw 8 to 10 miles an hour faster than anyone in the league, and he had no clue where it was going. He hit Ron Cey in the coconut one time — and he looked evil and happy at the same time.”
Then Ripken said he tagged along with Gossage after a game one night for a couple of beers and a plate of ribs. “I got to know him and saw that he was a good guy, and the next time we played I think I had three or four hits off him,” Ripken said. “I wasn’t intimidated anymore.”
The banquet also included the induction of two new members into the THSBCA Hall of Fame — former Jersey Village coach Mike Maddox, who went 527-301 in a coaching career that spanned nearly 30 years, and former Belton coach David Tidwell, who won 577 games, including 491 in a 23-year stint with the Tigers.